Friday, May 13, 2011

Space and time

What do Einstein and writing guru Dwight V. Swain have in common? The theory of relativity. Einstein once famously said, "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity."

Dwight V. Swain, in his epic tome on writing, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, said, “In writing, you translate tension into space: The more tense the situation as your focal character experiences it, the more words you give it.”

I don’t know why, but that one short passage in Swain’s book stopped me short with its brilliance.

Have you ever heard Captain Sullenberger talk about his experience landing flight 1549 on the Hudson River? When he listens to the flight recorder playback, the whole event takes place in mere minutes. And yet while he was going through it, time seemed to slow down. The volume of information and emotions he processed in that short period of time made it seem many times longer than the reality.

So if we follow Swain’s advice, we can give our readers an easy clue about how momentous an event is by how much space (i.e. relative time) we allot to it in our story.

To some degree, I’m sure we all do this instinctively. But I’m wondering if maybe some of my scenes that fell a little flat did so because I didn’t give them their due. Maybe I let too much of the experience happen “off screen”, thus shortchanging the reader and my story.

Next time I can’t figure out why an important scene isn’t working, I’ll check to see if I gave it enough space and time.


Lexi said...

Very interesting post! I will have to think about this one for a while. Tension=words. Huh.

Carla Swafford said...

I agree with you and Lexi. This is certainly something to think about.

One trick I learned--can't remember the name of the writing book--to make a scene scarier or more intense, is to have something funny or sweet happen just before it.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Thanks, Lexi. I'm sure the content of the words matters, but in a nutshell, yes. ;-)

I always hate when an author spends a lot of time on a character or scene that's about to die/doesn't matter. If she pays it a lot of attention, I figure it's important.

Gwen Hernandez said...

That's an interesting point, Carla. Contrast!